There are a lot of rules we set ourselves as writers. We try to show-not-tell, to make our characters round, to begin our stories with a conflict. We teach them to our students, preach them like the gospel, cite them in critiques, and write them core in every novel.
And for (mostly) good reason. People enjoy the stories these rules produce. Publishers buy them. Agents seek them. Readers read them. Everyone is pleased. I think it’s important, however, to remember that the rules we learn exist within a particular cultural and temporal context. Our definition of “good writing” is in steady evolution, and competing definitions both exist and flourish around the world and across time. While writing within the bounds of Western culture is of course worthwhile, we are remiss if we think that is all there is, and we are impoverished if we do not explore other ideas of good writing that the world has to offer.
Three weeks ago, I wrote about Kishōtenketsu, the East-Asian concept of a compelling plot without conflict. Today, I want to search more broadly, outline a couple of novels that I see employing different sets of conventions, and see where they take us. Perhaps, in time, we’ll be able to appreciate fully writing from other places and times, and, in doing so, enrich our own.
Ama Ata Aidoo – Changes: A Love Story
Changes is a heavy, sometimes humorous, feminist novella exploring spousal rape, polygamy, and gender roles in Ghanaian society. The book’s protagonist Esi divorces her husband, then becomes the second wife of the wealthy, charming Ali.
I struggled to connect at first with Aidoo’s writing style. The story burns through material quickly, leaving scenes and characters seemingly undeveloped. Many parts of the story are told in summary, the characters’ feelings named and not shown. By Western standards of fiction, the writing falls flat.
What I love about the book’s style, however, almost necessitates the above elements. Changes has a wonderful conversational style, as if someone is telling you the story over coffee. Indeed, many of the reflective sequels in the novella are conversations between Esi and a close friend. The book itself, in a way, takes on this quality for the whole narration.
The tone, even in its greatest crises, does not become dark or mournful. Again, the reader has the sense that they are listening to gossip. In a way, this easy, flowing tone helps Aidoo dig into the full implications of her topic. Not bound by having to flesh out character or scene, the focus returns more squarely to the ideas expressed. It reminds me, in a way, of a parable.
What are the possibilities here? Parable, in contemporary Western literature, is largely confined to children’s stories, if even there. A straightforward, unembellished tale to teach a lesson–is there room for such a thing anymore?
Why not? Parables are central to many religious texts, to oral literatures around the world, to children’s literature, and more. The fact that they have, perhaps, fallen out of favor in the West, perhaps they are something we have forgotten. This is something I’d like to see reclaimed, and perhaps books like Aidoo’s Changes can show us how.
Isabel Allende – The House of the Spirits
I am rereading this book now. It’s my current read-before-falling-asleep companion, and compared to my first encounter with it about ten years ago, I am effectively entranced.
From a Western rules-of-writing perspective, The House of the Spirits seems unfocused, poorly characterized, repetitive, and melodramatic. It is a family saga diffusely following a dozen characters (although significantly more focused than 100 Years of Solitude, to which it is often compared), all of whom Allende regularly subjects to tragedy, and copious foreshadowing makes it difficult to know what has already happened and what is still to come.
The House of the Spirits is a fantastic example of how context-specific our definitions of good writing are, because in the end, I think this novel can be deeply compelling. Characters in The House of the Spirits are deeply developed, yet in a way that is sometimes off-putting to a Western audience because their personalities are described explicitly: told to the reader rather than shown. Not dissimilar to Changes in this regard, the narration at times thus takes on the aura of an oral chronicle. The conceits of immersive storytelling are stripped away, and Allende gives us the hard judgments of her narrator just as a real person might give them.
There is no end to the drama of this book, from family pets cut up by butchers to city-leveling earthquakes. Again like Aidoo, the focus is perhaps so broad that none of the material delivers the full impact of which it might be capable. And yet, I am enthralled. I care about the characters more than I expected to. I think what Allende has done is to produce such a sheer volume of narrative that we cannot help but be immersed, even if many individual catastrophes are dispatched hurriedly. Two-thirds through my reread, I feel as though I know these characters, not because I have seen particularly detailed discussions of them, but more because of the large number of events I have seen them encounter. This is a wholly different take from the common Western idea that writers should focus on one central conflict and theme throughout a narrative. Allende gives us every bit of their lives, nearly from start to finish, and by utter refusal to focus in, she successfully makes her focus everything.
This is obviously a beginning only. Two novels, little context for either of them, I do not claim to know hardly anything about the conventions of these literary traditions. I am, however, prepared to argue that there is more than one definition of a good novel at play here. I’ll continue to read. I’ll continue to investigate. I want to build my understanding of what good writing looks like around the world, and I hope you’ll go there along with me.
What are your favorite books from other cultural contexts? How are they similar to what we find in the Western canon? How do they differ? What new ideas about writing have you encountered, and have you tried incorporating them into your own work?
Thanks for sharing. Thanks for reading. Best wishes.